Friday, July 27, 2012

The Elephant and the Blind Men

Once upon a time, a blind man was travelling down a road when he ran into an elephant. Feeling its trunk, he said aloud, “I have found something very strange! It feels like a snake!”

He soon discovered that he was not alone. A second man, also blind, had found the tail some minutes before. He agreed that it was flexible, but disagreed about it being thick, “It is a strange thing, but I think it’s a rope!” Just then, another set of blind travelers came to the creature and found its middle. They began to discuss amongst themselves the thing’s rigidity and strength. But when the pair came to talk about shape, they began to disagree vehemently. One hugged the leg and, from the roundness, insisted, “The thing is a tree!” The other pushed against the creature’s side and argued, “It is far too flat to be a tree. Surely it is a wall!”

Yet another blind man passing by heard the commotion. He would not approach the others or what they gathered around, and was astonished at the discussion. He mocked, “How can there be anything there at all? How can you all honestly think you’re right? Can’t you see (but alas, you are blind) that, at best, only one of you is right? If you ask me, I think it most reasonable that there is nothing there at all. You desire to feel ropes and trees and walls, and so your imagination gives birth to ropes and trees and walls.” Annoyed at the foolishness, he continued on his way.

The blind man touching the trunk, heard this rebuke, and had an epiphany. “No indeed! There is certainly something here. But it must be a very wonderful thing! We all truly feel differences, but maybe that is because the thing has no fixed shape. It is not really like a tree or a wall, but it may become like them. Truly, the best picture of this thing is like water. It may freeze solid and feel like a tree or a wall, but its true essence is water. Water may melt and be flexible like a stream and feel like a snake or a rope, but not be a snake or a rope. None of us understands the true essence of the thing and not even sight would reveal it.”

Just then, the Tree Grasper saw a vision of the thing like a thunderbolt from heaven. He and declared with a voice of wonder and conviction, “It is one creature!” There was silence. The others furrowed their brows, clutching tighter to their respective parts. “How could that be?” asked one of them. “It is a living thing, like a snake. But it is more rigid with strong bones, as our friend who felt the wall declared. It is flat in some places, round in others. We are all right about different aspects of it, but united in our error: it is not just one experience; it’s bigger than that. The thing is great enough to include each of our experiences.”

Just then they heard a new voice, one overflowing with confidence and joy. “It is an elephant!” the voice declared. The blind men were thrown into confusion. They stood and waited, turning their heads toward the newcomer. Eventually the Rope Grasper mustered courage and meekly asked, “What’s an elephant?”

Though they could not see it, the stranger smiled wryly. Then, with a voice full of music and authority, he commanded them, “Look and see!” Instantly the veil of darkness tore like a curtain, and light streamed in through the eyes of the once-blind men. They began weeping, but through their tears they saw that it was as the Tree Grasper had said. They all gathered together around the “snake” of the trunk and saw how it connected to the head and they understood how it helped the elephant eat and work. They went to the “rope” and laughed together about how it looked and how it expressed the creature’s mood. They saw that the “wall” and “tree” men had also been right; it did indeed have great strength. They realized that the strong bones and sinews of the creature were the only thing that ever could bind together “tree” and “snake,” “wall” and “rope.”

The men stood now blinking in the sun. In all the excitement, they had forgotten the stranger. And then they turned around and beheld the man. He was strong and standing tall, arrayed in fine clothes and wearing a crown of gold. The edges of his lips were upturned, his teeth were exposed, and his eyebrows were raised. The men looked then at the first smile they had ever seen, and could not keep themselves from returning it.

“Who are you?” they asked together in awe.

“I am the Prince, and this, whom you have been prodding, pushing, yanking and hugging, is my elephant,” he declared with a dramatic gesture to the creature. “She is well trained her to endure all manner of investigations by all manner of people.”

“Why do you have an elephant?” they asked.

“Movement!” declared the Prince.

“But where shall we go? Our homes are in all different parts; where can we go together?” the men asked.

The Prince replied, “You will come into my palace! Today, I am adopting you into the royal family! As of this moment, you are brothers to one another and heirs of the kingdom! Come home with me!”

And so the Prince called the elephant to kneel, and the once-blind men leaped up onto her back. As they climbed on, he set a crown of gold on the head of each one, embraced him, and looking him in the eye he said, “Welcome!” And so all of them began a journey toward the Palace of the Prince, united now as brothers, sighted men, and newly-crowned Princes of the Palace.


  1. Well done. Reminds me of "Rescue Me" by Annie Brooks: